A century ago, as America made clear its retreat from the egalitarian gains of Reconstruction, two powerful voices set out differing agendas for how black Americans should respond to the rise of Jim Crow. For Booker T. Washington, the best that blacks could hope for was to accommodate themselves to the tide of white reaction and, through economic and social self-help, perhaps could make themselves deserving of full political and legal rights. In contrast to Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that such accommodation only legitimized and bolstered white reaction, and he counseled that blacks should retreat not an inch in claiming their full rights as citizens.
Today, as America undergoes a similar retreat from the gains of the civil rights era, two books mirror a similar split in the strategies and tactics of black Americans. In Creating Equal: My Fight Against Racial Preferences, Ward Connerly casts himself as a latter-day version of Washington. In fact, Connerly takes great pride in a comment made to him by Washington’s great-grandson: “Your message is basically the same as his. Stand on your own two feet, rely on yourself, and stop blaming the world for your problems.”
The first part of Connerly’s book provides a Washingtonian, Up From Slavery-esque account of early years. For him, proper doses of family love, discipline and hard work are all that’s necessary and sufficient for success. “It is not the life we’re given, but the life we make of the life we’re given that counts,” he opines. Not only does Connerly fail to recognize that race and class exert a powerful effect on what kind of life we can make for ourselves, but certain aspects of his own life story ring false. As he tells it, one of the central events in his upbringing was as a teenager, when he and his maternal grandmother (who raised him after the death of his mother) were forced to go on welfare, an experience that he found stigmatizing and degrading. After a year and a half, Connerly decided that he’d had enough, and he stormed out of the house to look for a job. According to him, he accepted a part-time (he’s quite clear on this point) job that paid 65 cents an hour, which allowed him to make $80 a month–$20 more than what welfare provided. For Connerly, this relative amount is important, since he wishes to demonstrate that hard work, even on a part-time basis, is more profitable than welfare. But at 65 cents an hour, one would have to have worked nearly full-time to earn that much, suggesting either that Connerly’s memory might be a bit selective or that the value of low-wage work over welfare might not be as obvious as he would like it to seem.
But discrepancy or no, Connerly rarely misses an opportunity to criticize contemporary young blacks. In one instance, he writes: “As I drove out of my old neighborhood, an elderly black man waved at me, and a black teenager spit in the direction of my car. I wasn’t sure what to make of any of this.” (If he wasn’t sure, what is the point of the anecdote–other than for the reader to draw an unfavorable impression of young blacks?)
For the rest of Connerly’s work experience, success would rely at least as much on political cronyism as on luck and pluck. He relates several instances in which he parlayed his insider connections into personal financial gain. In one, his friend Pete Wilson (then Mayor of San Diego) called Connerly about a new federal program for local governments, telling him, “I wanted to give you a heads-up on this. You probably ought to take an interest.” Connerly indeed took an interest, and a lucrative one at that: “I immediately made contacts with cities and counties all over the state telling them about the bill and how they could control their own lower-income housing activities. Connerly & Associates established many relationships then that continue today.”
Ironically, Connerly’s professional experiences reinforce one of the arguments cited for affirmative action–that such policies provide black Americans with a chance to partake of the personal ties and old-boy networks that are clearly one of the perks of elite education and other socially inclusive situations. Furthermore, while Connerly denies ever having benefited directly from affirmative action, the claim seems implausible given his work with California government agencies, contractors and lobbyists over the past four decades. Even he admits that his appointment to the University of California Board of Regents came about because “an understanding had been reached between the governor and the senate, which has the power of confirmation, that future appointments would reflect greater ‘diversity.'” Despite this, Connerly claims that race was not the crucial factor in his selection but instead that he was a crony of Governor Wilson. “Cronyism,” Connerly claims, “is at least based on one’s individual qualities; diversity is based on factors that render individuality irrelevant.” Connerly was indeed a crony, but more important, he was a black crony, and thus ideal window dressing for white Republicans like Wilson, who sought to raise their political fortunes by attacking affirmative action.
Throughout his book, Connerly insists that he opposes affirmative action for reasons of principle, not out of a desire to curry favor with wealthy and powerful conservatives or to shed the psychological baggage of his mixed-raced ancestry. There seems no reason to doubt his sincerity on this score, but why does he consistently refuse to see his opponents in a similar light? The stories of those who have benefited from affirmative action are dismissed as “maudlin” or “specious.” Black civil rights leaders who support affirmative action are charlatans and demagogues, and the ordinary blacks who agree with them are dupes. Connerly even includes Colin Powell in this latter category, claiming that he changed his tune on affirmative action after “Jesse Jackson and the ‘brothers’ got to him.” On the other hand, those who support Connerly’s position are utterly altruistic. In his acknowledgments, Connerly mentions, among others, Glenn Campbell (former head of the Hoover Institution), Richard Gilder, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Mellon Scaife, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation–all of whom were motivated solely by the “desire to make this nation a better place.”
Despite such a high-profile roll of conservative supporters deserving of mention, Connerly would have us believe that his various anti-affirmative action campaigns are grassroots efforts by ordinary citizens outraged at the injustice of “racial preferences.” Yet Connerly’s own account tells a very different story–one in which his high-profile connections have again made all the difference in the world. For example, in early 1996 the original authors of Proposition 209 (the California Civil Rights Initiative, which abolished state-sponsored affirmative action) were unable to muster the resources or support to gather the required number of signatures to get on the November ballot. That is, until Connerly stepped in and helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Later in the campaign, Connerly secured a $1 million donation from Rupert Murdoch at a lunch meeting with him in the publisher’s penthouse apartment.
Connerly’s account of the campaign for Prop 209 does contain one important revelation: He confirms an allegation made in Nicholas Lemann’s recent book The Big Test [see David Karen, “Scoring the SATs,” December 13, 1999], that the passage of Prop 209 resulted from a compromise between opponents of affirmative action and the Clinton Administration. Fearing that the issue might undermine Bill Clinton’s re-election bid in California or even nationally, the White House made sure that the state Democratic Party and labor unions would not provide funding needed by the anti-Prop 209 forces to mount an effective campaign against the measure. Even though the outcome was as rigged as a professional wrestling match, CCRI won by a margin of 54-46, hardly the landslide that many had predicted. In fact, exit polls show that the outcome rested overwhelmingly on white votes, as blacks, Latinos and Asians (whom Connerly conspicuously cites as the victims of affirmative action) all opposed the measure by healthy margins.
These heavily racialized results reveal the fundamental weakness in Connerly’s claim that the campaign against affirmative action is an effort at color-blindness and neutrality. The method by which the attack on it has been mounted–direct voter referendums–reveals an overwhelming pattern of white racism. Throughout American history, in nearly every instance in which they have been given a direct vote on the matter, the majority of white Americans have rejected any measure beneficial to the interests of blacks. At times, such propositions have passed, but only with a coalition of a majority of minorities and a minority of whites. Connerly seems to have blinded himself to this pattern. He proudly mentions the role that he played in the passage of the Rumford Act, a pioneering open-housing measure passed by the California legislature in the early sixties. What he conspicuously leaves out is that in a 1964 referendum, whites overwhelmingly voted to overturn the act. In this respect, the comparison between Connerly and Booker T. Washington fails. As problematic as his message was, at least Washington never made common cause with white reactionaries and led the charge to further deny blacks their rights and access to beneficial programs.
If Booker T. Washington is to Ward Connerly as tragedy is to farce, then in The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, Randall Robinson shows himself to be a worthy heir to W.E.B. Du Bois. Robinson is a powerful and eloquent writer, and at its best, The Debt compares favorably to the literary quality shown by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk.
Like Du Bois, Robinson possesses a sweeping historical vision. Unlike Connerly and others who wish to believe that the history of American race relations began in 1965, Robinson recognizes that a sense of history is crucial to the current predicament of American race relations. He understands that the subordination of black Americans requires a limited historical perspective, and that if one goes back in time to before such subordination began, that is to undermine its very basis:
Far too many Americans of African descent believe their history starts in America with bondage and struggles forward from there toward today’s second-class citizenship. The cost of this obstructed view of ourselves is incalculable. How can we be collectively successful if we have no idea or, worse, the wrong idea of who we were and, therefore, are?… This then is the nub of it. America’s contemporary racial problem cannot be solved, racism cannot be arrested, achievement gaps cannot be fully closed until Americans–all Americans–are repaired in their views of Africa’s role in history.
Robinson then offers a brief retelling of some of the accomplishments of Africans prior to the rise of the slave trade in the fifteenth century, reinforcing the point that notions of black inferiority are not reason for–but the result of and a pretextual justification for–centuries of exploitation at the hands of whites.
Robinson’s discussion of Africa also shows another parallel with Du Bois. For both men, racism is global in nature, and the oppression of blacks in nations around the world is interconnected. As founder and president of TransAfrica, Robinson has been both an observer and participant in US foreign policy as it relates to blacks in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. This perspective allows him to detail the way in which US policy in these regions is a combination of benign neglect, condescension, outright hostility and even exploitation. Such ill treatment of blacks abroad, as Robinson points out, is both a cause and a consequence of the inequality of blacks in the United States. To treat blacks around the world as civilized equals would only call attention to the fact of racial inequality at home; and if American blacks were truly equal, it would compel the United States to treat black nations around the world with the respect and dignity provided to nations that are not.
A final similarity between Robinson and Du Bois is that neither is content to argue for scraps. Early in the twentieth century, Du Bois called for the restoration of full citizenship rights for black Americans, at a time when black leaders like Washington and liberal whites believed (in vain) that the most that could be achieved was that blacks might be able to exist in their subordinate position without the terror of lynching and mob violence. For Robinson, debates over the retention of affirmative action are inadequate. Although he supports such policies, he states that the benefits “will never come anywhere near to balancing the books here…. I choose not to spend my limited gifts and energy and time fighting only for the penny due when a fortune is owed.”
It is that fortune that forms the core of Robinson’s argument in The Debt. For him, the debt that America owes to blacks is massive, in both psychological and material terms. Although for centuries black Americans have contributed to society, they have been systematically denied their true history, forced to live under a system that ascribes their subordination to their own inadequacies, and cheated out of material wealth. Such inequality is neither trivial nor can it be overcome by laissez-faire policies, as offered by Connerly. As Robinson writes, “Parallel lines never touch, no matter how far in time or space they extend.”
In Robinson’s view, for these lines to begin to move toward one another requires reparations by white Americans to black Americans. He makes a convincing case that financial compensation is due, and, given reparations paid to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and to victims of the Holocaust, that there is sufficient legal and political precedent for such a policy. After reading this book, I am convinced that the question is not whether black Americans are owed reparations, but rather how much.
Still, many, including some who are sympathetic to Robinson’s intentions, will argue that even mentioning the word reparations will only antagonize whites and make it even more difficult to muster support for lesser measures of benefit to black Americans. This is undoubtedly true, but throughout American history black advancement has always been divisive. Any real attempt to address racial inequality will create, at least in the short run, more division rather than less. In this regard, Robinson is to be credited with stirring up the pot. Injustice always works best when both victim and perpetrator are relatively blind to its operation. By speaking out on this issue, he makes it more difficult for blacks and whites to remain behind a veil of claimed ignorance. Indeed, as Robinson writes, for black Americans even to raise the concept is to move in the right direction: “The issue is not whether we can, or will, win reparations. The issue rather is whether we will fight for reparations, because we have decided for ourselves that they are our due.” Given the fact that few white Americans are willing to forgo voluntarily the benefits of America’s racial hierarchy, such activism by blacks is probably necessary for progress.
The benefits of Robinson’s proposal go beyond the merely psychological. By discussing the issue of reparations, he focuses attention on one of the most important aspects of American racial inequality–the staggering gap in wealth between black and white Americans. As scholars like Melvin Oliver, Thomas Shapiro and Dalton Conley have shown, this wealth gap is a direct result of centuries of racism, abetted in large part by government policies and programs. Furthermore, wealth inequality has a significant impact on a whole range of life circumstances, including family stability, home ownership, education, employment, welfare and the ability to transmit class status to one’s children. Consequently, remedying racial inequality in America requires remedying wealth inequality. And reparations are clearly a means to do so.
After reading The Debt, one hopes that Robinson and Du Bois will be dissimilar in one important way. Despite his eloquence and intellect, Du Bois’s protests went largely unheard as the forces of reaction descended upon America. Let us hope that in the coming century, Americans of all colors will avoid this mistake by heeding the words of Randall Robinson.